Keith gets by with a little help from pal Buddy Guy.
Keith gets by with a little help from pal Buddy Guy.

The Stones and Scorsese

Shine a Light makes even the biggest comic-book superhero collaborations look lame. The upcoming concert documentary, previously released on IMAX, recently arrived at regular movie theaters. And it teams up one of the greatest rock bands in history, the Rolling Stones, with one of the greatest American movie directors ever, Martin Scorsese, in a duet of sorts.

The idea for the film came to frontman Mick Jagger, he says, during the buildup to the Stones' A Bigger Bang tour, which ran from August 2005 to August 2007 and ultimately grossed more than half a billion dollars. The goal was to shoot the band's biggest concert ever, in Rio de Janeiro for an audience one million strong, and present it on the biggest consumer screen ever: the IMAX.

But shooting something of this magnitude meant recruiting a filmmaker just as big. Scorsese, who has used the Stones' music in many of his movies, agreed to the job in the autumn of 2006. It was just months before The Departed — which also used Stones' music — was released and won him a long-deserved Oscar for Best Director.


Rolling Stones concert documentary

But Scorsese says he quickly came to the conclusion that the Stones were making a mistake trying to give movie viewers an arena-size experience, so he nixed plans for a 3-D presentation. The Stones, at their essence, were about the four guys onstage — Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts. And capturing that meant finding a smaller venue than the one in Rio. The answer was the Beacon Theatre, in New York.

"The Beacon Theatre is special for some reason," says lead guitarist Richards, sporting his trademark headband. He's gathered with his bandmates and Scorsese at the New York Palace Hotel on a recent afternoon to discuss their cinemtic opus. "It wraps around [you], especially if you're going to play there for more than one night" — which the Stones ultimately did for Shine a Light, playing two nights — "and every night it's warmer. [Besides], this band didn't start off in stadiums," he adds, laughing.

Scorsese is no stranger to music docs, having edited Woodstock and directed The Last Waltz and No Direction Home. And he sees it this way: "I think I'm better suited to try to capture the group onstage, on a small stage, more for the intimacy, the way you see the band work together and work each song."

Jagger laughs at this. "The funny thing really is that Marty, after looking at all the options, decided he wanted to make this small, intimate movie, and I said, 'Well, the laugh is, Marty, that, in the end, it's going to be blown up on this huge IMAX thing. So the intimate moment is now shown in IMAX."

"The slight imperfections might be revealed," guitarist Wood points out, chuckling.

More than 18 cameras, along with a collection of celebrated directors of photography, were packed into the Beacon for the big night, which also served as a fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation's efforts to bring awareness to climate change. (In fact President Bill Clinton opened for the Stones — he and Hillary are seen early in the movie.)

"The idea [was] to capture the spontaneity of the group, and the word capture means you have to control it," Scorsese says. "But you can't control spontaneity, so, therefore, the cameras had to be in the right positions." Ten-minute-long reels were used, and extra cameras had to be available to take over while others were reloaded; even more were on hand, which seemed redundant but was necessary to make sure no shots were lost due to poor focus.

"I didn't realize [directing] was such hard work, Marty," Richards says, laughing.

Besides the Clintons, there were other guest stars. Among those appearing for superduets in the film are Jack White of the White Stripes, Buddy Guy, and even Christina Aguilera. "[Duets] don't always work," Jagger says, "but I think everyone likes [these] duets. They really came off."

Meanwhile, Scorsese's devotion to the Stones is evident. At age 65, he's pretty much the mean age of the bandmates and grew up with their rock. As a filmmaker, he continues to show their influence on him via his soundtracks. It's led to Jagger joking that Shine a Light is the only Scorsese movie not to feature "Gimme Shelter."

"[They] remind me of when I went to see The Threepenny Opera back in 1959, 1960, and how the music affected me and what [the] play was saying," Scorsese says of the musical about working-class antiheroes. "The lyrics were so important to me. I found I grew up in an area that was in a sense like The Threepenny Opera, and I think ... the Rolling Stones' music had a similar effect on me. It deals with aspects of the life that I was growing up in.... It was tougher, had an edge — beautiful and honest and brutal at times."

His belief in the group's longevity is apparent as well, especially in the way the director intercuts concert scenes with archival news footage of the band members from their first couple of decades. Even back then, journalists repeatedly pestered them about how long they could keep rocking.

Shine a Light has been called a meditation on aging. And Richards simply laughs when asked if he'll still be performing at age 70. "That's only five years away!" In other words, don't expect the Stones to slow down anytime soon. Judging by Scorsese's energy, he won't be either.


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